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Europe’s growing abortion nightmare

Europe’s growing abortion nightmare

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Reporting for this article was carried out by Akmaljon Akhmedjonov, Bernadeta Barokova, Yijing Chen, Pius Fozan, Timotheus Paul Goldinger, Kristina Kovalska, Leila Lawrence, Hanna Perenyi, Carina Samhaber, Stephanie Songer, Marziyeh Taeb, Tripti Tripti and Joseph Scioli, masters and PhD students at the Central European University in Vienna, under the editorship of Professor Marius Dragomir.

When she was 19 years old, Anna Peer had an abortion after her intrauterine device malfunctioned. “I didn’t realize at the time how lucky and privileged I was,” said Peer, now 24. “My gynecologist basically carried me through everything.”

But through her work for the Austrian Family Planning Association (ÖGF), an NGO that provides counseling related to reproductive health, Peer now sees “what the system’s actually like.”

Interviews we conducted with activists, doctors and lawmakers from eight countries all show that due to a combination of restrictive legislation, prohibitive medical costs and the decreasing availability of doctors willing to perform an abortion, terminating a pregnancy is increasingly becoming a nightmare for women in Europe.

“It’s for sure getting worse,” Peer said. And her views are echoed by many.

A criminal act?

In most European Union countries, legal restrictions are already a major hurdle for women who want to terminate a pregnancy, as abortion is regulated in the criminal code.

“Abortions are not legal in Austria,” said Anna Maria Lampert from Changes for Women — a Vienna-based NGO raising funds to help pregnant women get access to safe abortions. In Austria, abortion has been regulated through the criminal code since 1975. “You are exempt from punishment in the first three months of pregnancy if you voluntarily decide to have an abortion. But that doesn’t mean they’re legal,” she said.

“Why is [abortion] in the penal code?” asked Elke Graf, head of the pro:woman ambulatorium in Vienna. “There is no other law that deals with the body of a living being.”

Meanwhile, in Germany, a legally mandatory three-day counseling and cooling-off period further complicates any attempt to get an abortion. “Psychological counseling is an additional burden that makes a difficult situation even worse for women,” said Dr. Cemil Yaman, who heads the Linz-based Institut Gynomed. And in all his years of experience, he said, “not one in 10 women” seeking abortion has doubted her decision.

Furthermore, in Hungary, pregnant women are forced to listen to the heartbeat of the unborn child starting from the first ultrasound, even before deciding whether they might want to have an abortion. And in Poland, which has the strictest legal provisions in the EU by far, abortion is now allowed only in cases of rape, incest or if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life.

Another high price to pay

In addition to such restrictions, the cost of abortion is also extortionate for many women. 

Across Europe, abortion is only covered by health insurance if it has to be carried out for medical reasons — which is rarely the case. So, in many countries, only private clinics provide this medical service, which means women have to pay for it out-of-pocket.

In Austria, for example, an abortion can cost between €300 to €1,000. Peer shared that she was able to use her mother’s extra insurance when terminating her pregnancy, otherwise she estimates she would have had to put down around €1,300 — as abortions are also subject to a 20 percent value-added tax (VAT) in Austria.

“It is not recognized as a medical treatment; the state says it is [a woman’s] hobby, sarcastically speaking,” Yaman explained. 

Similarly, in Hungary, state-run healthcare facilities charge nearly 42,000 Hungarian forint (about €110) to perform an abortion, while in a private clinic, the cost can surge to roughly 350,000 forint (or €930). And in Romania, where two out of three on-demand abortions are done in private clinics, the intervention can cost upward of €900 — that’s a stiff cost in a country where the monthly average wage hovers around €860.

Adding to these woes is also the limited availability of doctors that perform abortions.

For example, Austria’s least populous state of Burgenland has no clinic that officially performs abortions, while the western state of Tyrol — with some 754,000 inhabitants — has only one such doctor. “The supply situation is really disastrous,” Lampert said.

Likewise, according to Gabriel Brumariu, the head of the Contraceptive and Sexual Education Society NGO, in some rural areas in Romania, there’s only one doctor available for any kind of medical service within a 100-kilometer radius. “For a poor person, it’s very expensive, almost impossible, to go to another county or another city to have an abortion,” he said.

Members of several feminist NGO’s protest in front of the Romanian government in Bucharest on March 8, 2023, to mark the International Women’s Day. – A couple of hundreds of women gathered in a protest asking the authorities to respect the right of choice and the right to abortion, as the number of places where this procedure can be done in the state health system is decreasing | Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty images

And legal provisions allowing doctors to refuse to perform an abortion have only added to the complication. 

For example, according to investigative journalist Claire Provost, there are currently regions in Italy where such doctors — known as “conscientious objectors” — account for over 90 percent of those carrying out abortions.

“Free access to abortion doesn’t only mean to be legal, it means to be accessible in a sense that the costs are low and you have enough doctors to practice,” noted Monika Vana, an Austrian MEP from the Green Alternative. “In many member states, access to abortion is getting more and more restricted, even if it’s legal.”

And in some countries, these legal restrictions make it difficult for women to even get access to medicines — like in Slovakia, where only surgical abortion is legally allowed and women have to travel to Austria to buy an abortion pill, which doctors say is the safest method to terminate pregnancy.

A grim picture

Still, in recent years, Europe has also witnessed a series of achievements in regards to protecting women’s reproductive rights. In Austria, gynecologists in private practice have been allowed to dispense abortion pills since 2020; in 2022, the then newly elected German government removed a ban on advertising for abortions; Spain passed a new law criminalizing the harassment of women who ended their pregnancies; and in France, the contraceptive pill was made free of charge to women under 25.

Despite such progress, however, the overall picture is grim — and the worst is yet to come.

A series of recent events — particularly the tightening of abortion laws in Poland and Hungary since 2021, and the overturning of Roe v Wade in the U.S. last year — have emboldened pro-life European NGOs to rekindle their campaigns against abortion.

Vienna’s U-Bahn is a visible site for such campaigns, with adverts for the Österreichische Lebensbewegung (Austrian Life Movement), anti-abortion umbrella organization Aktion Leben (Action Life) and “crisis pregnancy helpline” Es Gibt Alternativen (There Are Alternatives) all scattered across the city’s underground transport network.

In a 2021 report, Neil Datta of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights identified about 120 such groups financed through a slew of sources, ranging from American donors to Christian NGOs and Russian oligarchs.

According to Datta, European Christian-right organizations are now following their American peers in “judiciary infiltration,” training lawyers and helping place them within the court system. Such as in Poland, where the government included Aleksander Stępkowski — the founder of prominent anti-abortion activist group Ordo Iuris — on its list of candidates for the European Court of Human Rights.

“From a faith standpoint, I must believe a ban [on abortion] can be on the horizon,” said Brad Hayes, founding director of Outstretched Hands (OH), a Christian-oriented anti-abortion organization based in the Romanian county of Calarasi. Hayes believes the country’s high abortion rate justifies a ban, and that if the fertility rate continues to dwindle, Romania will cease to exist as it is now.

“Abortion is exterminating [Romania’s] future population, future workforce, future economy,” he said. And according to Hayes, the number of abortions in Romania over the past 50 years exceeds the number of inhabitants living in the country today — though no statistics confirming these figures could be identified.

Interestingly, such anti-abortion militants receive support from right-wing conservative parties and politicians in both the U.S. and Europe. “Wherever right-wing movements are gaining strength, abortion is becoming an issue again,” said Meri Disoski, an Austrian Green Party MP. But, she added, these right-wing politicians aren’t actually concerned about the life of an unborn child, they’re using abortion to beef up their racist worldview.

For instance, right-wing parties Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) both propagate the reproduction of their “own” offspring as a way to protect their nations. “What Emily aborts, Aischa gives birth to,” the FPÖ wrote in a recent Instagram post , and for them, the uterus is “the place with the highest mortality rate in our country.” The party didn’t respond to our invitation to comment.

Along these lines, according to Pavol Hardoš at Comenius University, over the past five years, at least 20 attempts were made to introduce a legal ban on abortion in Slovakia, with one in 2021 being narrowly rejected in parliament by only one vote. And Austria’s former coalition between the conservative ÖVP and right-wing FPÖ was also close to adopting such a highly restrictive law, and it was only the coalition’s collapse due to scandal that put an end to the plan.

Thus, to prevent such a ban in the EU, MEPs have been calling for the right to abortion to be included in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights since last July. “This is what we are fighting for now at the EU level,” Vana said. However, the bloc isn’t likely to handle this request before the next EU elections in 2024.

The right body language

Despite all this, experts still find a blanket abortion ban across Europe unlikely. “There would be very little political reward for such a plan,” said Maria Mesner, former head of the gender studies program at the University of Vienna. Yet, even in the absence of a ban, for women in need of abortion access, things are getting worse by the day.

“There’s no need to impose a ban when you can just make it harder [to have an abortion],” said Graf. And further limiting the period of pregnancy during which abortions are allowed is one such example of how that can be achieved.

Women’s rights supporters argue that in order to counter such threats, the first step is to decriminalize abortion across Europe. “Abortion should be acknowledged as a reproductive health service,” said Katharina Riedlmair, a family planning adviser with the ÖGF. But that’s an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, Hayes from OH believes that many women choose to have an abortion because they’re pushed in that direction by their gynecologists, and his organization is currently working with women to talk them out of it.

But Yaman points out that women’s decision to abort is actually “very facts-based,” including reasons such as a lack of financial resources, problems with partners or not being able to take care of a child because they’re employed or enrolled in school. “For me, it was very clear what I wanted and what I didn’t want,” Peer said, adding that she felt “relieved” after the abortion.

The truth is that when abortion is used for political gains, it’s women who suffer, said Disoski. And banning abortion doesn’t reduce the number of abortions either — it puts the health and lives of pregnant women at massive risk, often leading to impoverishment and social stigmatization.

“I do not see women deciding about men’s bodies,” stated Karo, a volunteer with the Vienna-based feminist NGO Ciocia Wienia. “So, why should they be able to decide what happens to mine?”

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